A Cult of Personality — whose persona to follow?

Originally I was­n’t going to write on this top­ic, but this morn­ing I was read­ing an old friend’s blog and start­ed think­ing about the sit­u­a­tion, and these thoughts became notes, and became a small com­ment, and now this brief post. So the log­i­cal start­ing point for this post is here: http://www.dylanmalloch.com/2014/10/mark-driscoll-theology-vs-behaviour.html and with Mark Driscoll’s sud­den res­ig­na­tion from Mars Hill (Christianity Today).

Many of the words writ­ten on Driscoll’s sud­den res­ig­na­tion have focused on spe­cif­ic aspects of his life, min­istry, the­ol­o­gy or church, but while these are all good per­spec­tives to explore, I’m not con­vinced that these explo­rations will go much fur­ther than skin deep. Mark DriscollWhile there are a pletho­ra of facets, his­tor­i­cal and present, the­o­log­i­cal and per­son­al, and many more that serve to build a big­ger and stronger pic­ture of the sit­u­a­tion at hand, but one aspect I think has been over­looked a bit. I think that it is not the the­o­log­i­cal cre­den­tials or creeds that is at stake here, rather it is more about the cult of per­son­al­i­ty that was built up around Driscoll, and that is cer­tain­ly not unique.

Rather we see the same sort of implo­sions and res­ig­na­tions across a wider range of the church includ­ing many non-con­ser­v­a­tive Reformed Evangelicals. Issues with var­i­ous pas­tors and lead­ers are rife in the wider church, and while snip­pets are heard briefly, they cer­tain­ly don’t make nation­al news head­lines. I think that the case with Mars Hill got sig­nif­i­cant air time because tra­di­tion­al­ly con­ser­v­a­tive evan­gel­i­cal Christianity has fol­lowed the exam­ple set forth in 1 Corinthians and has reject­ed cults of lead­er­ship in the same fash­ion that is found in Paul’s admonition.

However, our soci­ety as a whole cer­tain­ly has not shied away from fol­low­ing after lead­ers and per­son­al­i­ties, and per­haps the best exam­ple of this is MTV and the pletho­ra of peo­ple fol­low­ing after the strong per­son­al­i­ties in the pub­lic space. The cult of per­son­al­i­ty  appears intrin­sic in human nature, and I think it prob­a­bly reflects the mid­dle cat­e­go­ry of Maslow’s hier­ar­chy of needs: Love and Belonging. These needs are fur­ther inten­si­fied by inter­act­ing with strong social iden­ti­ty mark­ers in an ever splin­ter­ing social world, and seek­ing an in-group to feel at home with.

But I think just as the Church is in the world, it imbibes this ever ner­vous­ness over social iden­ti­ty and so we too can be just as obsessed with sta­tus and and per­son­al­i­ty as ear­ly Corinthian church was. Just as the Corinthian’s were divid­ed over Apollos vs Paul vs Cephas (1 Corinthians 1:12) so too the mod­ern church fol­lows after Driscoll, Calvin, Dollar, Houston etc etc. Across the church as a whole there are strong ten­den­cies towards cults of per­son­al­i­ty, and dri­ven by a com­plex web of social iden­ti­ty con­struc­tion and for­ma­tion. While cer­tain­ly a cult of per­son­al­i­ty needs a per­son­al­i­ty to fol­low after, I think there is also a strong onus on those sit­ting in the pews, the gen­er­al con­gre­ga­tion, and the Church catholic.

Perhaps a few illus­tra­tions are war­rant­ed. The cult of per­son­al­i­ty is eas­i­est to see in the case of Driscoll and the wider range of mega-church preach­ers, and even eas­i­er again to see with itin­er­ant preach­ers such as Creflow Dollar. But I was a bit stunned this week to find that the cult of per­son­al­i­ty does­n’t actu­al­ly need a liv­ing breath­ing per­son to fol­low after.

This week I dis­cov­ered a 10626606_726511277385898_8876200350693483732_nnasty lit­tle prac­ticed called ‘grave suck­ing’, basi­cal­ly involv­ing the ven­er­a­tion of grave sites of var­i­ous Christian lead­ers. Simply put these peo­ple head out to a grave, and believe that they can ‘suck’ spe­cial bless­ings from the corpse of the dead. See the thumb­nail for an exam­ple. A cult of per­son­al­i­ty with­out even a per­son to phys­i­cal­ly follow.

Of course there is the the­o­log­i­cal­ly sani­tised ver­sion of this, where peo­ple fol­low the­o­log­i­cal tra­di­tion in such a slav­ish way that they may as well be phys­i­cal­ly fol­low­ing the indi­vid­ual in ques­tion. Hyper-Calvinists, hyper-Lutherans etc. Arguably the dif­fer­en­ti­at­ing fac­tor here is dis­agree­ment. While I fol­low the reformed Anglican tra­di­tion, and i think high­ly of Calvin’s the­ol­o­gy, I occa­sion­al­ly dis­agree with his inter­pre­ta­tion or appli­ca­tion of scrip­ture. This can be extrap­o­lat­ed out slight­ly, where it is not only a per­son­age to fol­low, but an ide­o­log­i­cal slav­ish­ness. One recent exam­ple of this has been the engage­ment and accu­sa­tions of ‘going Catholic’ towards a swathe of Reformed Protestant schol­ars  that sits some­where between con­fus­ing and bizarre. I wont write more on this, but sim­ply refer to Mike Bird’s blog arti­cle on the top­ic: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/euangelion/2014/10/setting-the-australian-church-record-straight-about-justification/

One inter­est­ing indi­ca­tor I found recent­ly on the health of wider Anglicanism on this top­ic has been the respons­es to the admis­sion from Justin Welby the Archbishop of Canterbury over the inter­ac­tion between faith and doubt. http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2014/sep/18/archbishop-canterbury-doubt-god-existence-welby Interestingly there has been sig­nif­i­cant back­lash from some in the church who believe that lead­ers should be infal­li­ble, and cer­tain­ly not doubt­ing any­thing what­so­ev­er. When a leader admits that they are not on the pedestal that they have been set upon, then they are set on by the swathes of Facebook and Twitter com­men­ta­tors. Perhaps the less said about that the better.

The final point I will adduce is the astute and active denial of the cult of per­son­al­i­ty that some lead­ers, such as Tim Keller, have engaged with. Keller com­mon­ly refus­es to pose for self­ies, choos­es to speak less on stage than oth­ers if pos­si­ble, and his appear­ance here in Australia this year was like­ly a one off event. His choice to active­ly under­cut any cult of per­son­al­i­ty as much as he can cer­tain­ly says some­thing about the human ten­den­cies at play here.

So if these psy­cho­log­i­cal and social issues are at play then what can be done to move for­ward here. In our sin­ful state I think that it is like­ly fol­ly to be attempt­ing to change our intrin­sic psy­cho-social dis­po­si­tion. However, I think that there is one aspect to our social iden­ti­ty for­ma­tion, and desire to fol­low after a per­son­al­i­ty that can be recog­nised. Namely that we do have a per­son­al­i­ty to fol­low, one who was a liv­ing breath­ing flesh­ly per­son, and indeed is so now. In the end the only per­sona that we should be fol­low­ing of is the sec­ond per­son of the tres per­sona una sub­stan­tia. As Christians our cult of per­son­al­i­ty should be, must be, and is cen­tred around Christ. It should be psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly cathar­tic, social­ly com­fort­ing, and strong­ly iden­ti­ty building.


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